Baseball

Sunday Notes: A Scandal Haunting, AJ Hinch is the New Manager of the Detroit Tigers

A number of you reading this will share the same opinion: A.J. Hinch was suspended for his role in the Houston Astros cheating scandal, and for that reason he has no business managing a major league baseball team. It’s a reasonable stance. The integrity of the game matters, and while Hinch wasn’t fully on board with the shenanigans — he twice smashed the monitor used to steal signs — he nonetheless shares in the blame. That he didn’t put a stop to the outlawed actions is an indelible stain on his reputation.

On Friday — freshly freed from MLB’s sanctions — Hinch was named the new manager of the Detroit Tigers. Speaking at his introductory press conference, the club’s one-time catcher was understandably contrite.

“I’ve reflected back… from something that was very wrong,” Hinch expressed to a bevy of reporters. “As I told Mr. Ilich, and Al, that’s part of my story. It’s not the Tigers’ story… it’s not a part of the players I’m going to be managing. I’m sorry that they’re going to have to deal with it, [but] that’s our reality. Wrong is wrong, and I feel responsible, because I was the manager. It was on my watch.”

Mr. Ilich is Christopher Ilich, the Tigers’ Chairman and CEO. Al is Al Avila, the club’s Executive VP, Baseball Operations/General Manager. The latter, who’d phoned Hinch 30 minutes after the conclusion of the World Series to request he get on a plane to Detroit, was already well-acquainted with the now-free-to-negotiate candidate. Based on his history with Hinch, Avila wasn’t overburdened by what had happened in Houston.

“We had a pretty good knowledge of AJ, of who he was,” Avila explained. “There was never a doubt in my mind of his character. Honesty, he’s one of the better guys you’re going to meet in the game, or in life in general. No one mistake determines a man.”

His bona fides are beyond reproach. As Avila pointed out, Hinch has a World Series championship on his resume, as well as a background in both scouting and player development — beneficial experiences given the team’s youthful promise. Moreover, Hinch is well-versed in analytics, an attribute he adroitly pairs with — in Avila’s words — “baseball acumen.” The veteran front office executive conveyed that the erstwhile Astros manager “checks all the boxes.”

Replicating the success he had in Houston won’t come easily. Hinch knows that, but he’s equally aware that there’s a lot of high-ceiling talent in the Tigers’ pipeline, particularly on the pitching side. He helped turn a young Astros team into a championship team, and he sees the same opportunity in Detroit.

“We had a lot of success at my last stop, and this is a little bit of a different job because of where this organization is at at,” said Hinch. “But one of the things that stood out for me in the interview process was how Al continued talk about how we’re past the rebuild stage. We’re getting into the building stage, and are going to start getting into the fun pretty soon.”

How soon that fun starts is hard to predict, but one thing is for certain: Hinch was brought on board with winning in mind, and expectations are that he’ll eventually take the Tigers to the top. In the meantime, the Astros’ cheating scandal will remain an inescapable part of Hinch’s history. Ilich accepts that, albeit with full confidence that he hired the right person for the job.

“We have high expectations for how we’re going to perform on the field in terms of wins and losses, but also how we conduct ourselves,” Ilich said. “And I believe, to my core, that AJ is going to conduct himself in the appropriate manner… As Al articulated, and I fully endorse, AJ is exceptionally well-positioned… to help us grow, and ultimately become highly competitive. Hopefully win a World Series championship.”

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An experience that Tom House and Dusty Baker shared 50-plus years ago still leaves a sour taste. Minor-league teammates at the time, they went out looking for a bite to eat in West Palm Beach, Florida, accompanied by Ralph Garr. Things didn’t go as planned.

“It was our first spring training, so this would have been 1968,” recalled House, who grew up on the West Coast and graduated from the University of Southern California. “Ralph, Dusty and I stumbled into a restaurant that wouldn’t serve the two of them. That was a huge surprise to me, because it had never really occurred to me that this black-white thing was even there. But they handled it well.”

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Jason Phillips went 3 for 18 Brett Tomko.

Brett Gardner went 1 for 8 against Philip Humber.

Brandon Phillips went 1 for 8 against Brett Anderson.

George Brett went 2 for 7 against Phillip Leftwich.

Philip Gagliano went 1 for 7 against Ken Brett.

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Tampa Bay’s bullpen received a boatload of attention throughout the regular season, and that only increased once October rolled around. And for good reason. Blessed with a plethora of attractive options, Kevin Cash went to his pen often, and with little hesitation. As has been well-chronicled, a baker’s dozen Rays relievers recorded saves over the course of the postseason-extended campaign.

Flying under the radar, yet every bit worthy of recognition, was the man entrusted not only with keeping the relievers ready, but also with making sure they’re fully prepared. Stan Boroski has been Tampa Bay’s bullpen coach since 2012, and I asked Cash about him during the ALCS.

“I believe he’s our longest- tenured uniformed staff member,” the Tampa Bay manager said of Borowski. “He’s experienced a lot. Those guys look at Stan as kind of a model of consistency. The information that’s provided as they’re warming up getting ready to go… he’s the same guy every single day out there.”

The Rays have a reputation for being data-heavy, but that doesn’t mean Boroski is in the bullpen wielding a cudgel. Far from. As a rule, his instruction is delivered in well-measured doses.

“Stan’s not going to overload you with a wealth of information,” explained Cash. “He’s going to pick his spots. That’s what he’s really, really good at. He and [pitching coach] Kyle Snyder complement each other really well, but when you’re in the bullpen — and I was fortunate enough to do it in Cleveland for two years — you’re actually managing that area of the game. You’ve got seven or eight pitchers — this year a little more with the expanded rosters — and you’re kind of the manager until the bullpen is asked upon. The presence that Stan has provided has helped all those guys this season, and throughout their careers with us.”

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A quiz:

Who holds the Cleveland Indians franchise record for most sacrifice flies?

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS ITEMS

Tom Yewcic, whose big league career consisted of one game with the Detroit Tigers in 1979, died last week at age 88. An All-American quarterback at Michigan State University — the Spartans went 27-1 with him under center — Yewcic went on to play six seasons with the Boston Patriots.

Former Baseball Prospectus prospect writer Kevin Goldstein was among the baseball operations employees let go by the Houston Astros earlier this week. Goldstein had been with Astros since 2012.

Joe Oliver is among the Red Sox employees whose contracts aren’t being renewed. The former big-league catcher has been coaching in the Boston system for each of the past seven seasons, most recently with the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs.

The Society for American Baseball Research will hold its annual SABR Day on Saturday, January 30. As part of the organization’s golden anniversary, SABR plans to provide a two-hour block of virtual, national SABR programming from 2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. EST.

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The answer to the quiz is Omar Vizquel, who had 62 sacrifice flies as a member of the Cleveland Indians. Vizquel had 94 sacrifice flies in all, and is tied with Chili Davis, Jim Rice, and Ron Santo for 51st place on the all-time list. Eddie Murray had 128, the most of any player.

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Charlie Morton was asked a question about spin rate during a World Series media session, and the answer he gave was… well, pure Charlie Morton. The 36-year-old right-hander — now a free agent, his option not having been picked up by the Tampa Bay Rays — tossed brevity aside, speaking for better than six minutes. Here is the transcript, edited for clarity:

Morton: “I didn’t know it at the time, but I had a really high spin rate on my curveball this whole time. Once the Statcast era started… it was probably 2013 or so, we had MLB Network on and they were talking about the spin rate on curveballs. I looked up, and lo and behold, there was my name in the Top 5 for spin rate on curveballs. I thought, ‘Well, that’s pretty cool.’ I mean, if you think about purely the physics on a curveball, the higher the spin rate, the higher the potential for movement and later movement.

“I never thought about spin rate on my fastball. If anything, I thought that spin rate was a bad thing on a fastball, because I was a sinkerballer. The way I understood it — and the way I still do — is that you have a spin angle and a spin rate. The ball is interacting in space with the air, and the resistance of the air, and my interpretation was for a sinker, the lower the better. So I thought, ‘Well, this is good, because I can spin the heck out of a curveball, and I have a lower spin rate on my two-seamer, which at the time is what I primarily threw. I threw from 60-70% two seamers.

“It wasn’t until I got to the Astros that it was even a part of the discussion. I never really thought about my four-seamer spin rate; I never did anything to change the angle of my hand, or anything [to do with] my spin rate. I think what happened was, because there’s such a delta in movement between my two-seamer and my sinker — and then even more so on my four-seamer and my curveball — in terms of vertical movement… that’s when I started to think about exactly what was going on. Guys like Verlander would talk about it. Guys would talk about carry on a four-seamer, and I’d never even thought about carry on a four-seamer.

“There was a discussion in 2018 about all of our spin rates. It wasn’t until that time that I actually looked at the data, and the charts and the graphs I had access to. You could see how my fastball spin rates — especially my four-seamers — correlated with my pitch speeds. That’s how it works, right? If I were to stand here and flip you a four-seamer out of my hand… if I flipped it to you at 30 mph it wouldn’t come out at 2,400 rpm, right? So there’s a speed correlation with the amount of spin you’re going to get. It wasn’t until I started throwing harder that my spin rate started to go up, and it correlated perfectly.

“One of our analytics guys, who is one of our coaches, actually told me the other night that my four-seamer is a pitch that outperforms the data. I don’t know if that gave me confidence or took it away. I think what he was essentially saying is, in terms of carry that I achieve — or the spin I achieve on my four-seamer — it plays better. It plays up, for whatever reason. [He] basically said to me, “We can’t explain why it’s as effective as it is.’

“I’ve known now for a while that my curveball spin is good, but it took me another four years until I got to…there was a discussion of the effectiveness of my curveball with the Phillies. Bob McClure and Rick Kranitz pulled me into a room and were like, ‘Hey, you need to throw this pitch a lot more.’ Unfortunately, I only lasted four starts with the Phillies. But that following year, when I got to the Astros, they said, ‘Hey, you need to throw this pitch, not just like 5-10 percent more, but 15, 20, 30 percent more. When I got to the Rays, it was even more; I was throwing my curveball, last year, about 50 percent of the time.

“I would say that just because you know what your spin rates are… they don’t necessarily correlate with what the ball is going to do. I think it’s more about potential. Knowing what your spin rates are maybe would give you more confidence to throw certain pitch. Like if you could backspin a four-seam fastball at 2,700-2,800 rpm, and you knew that, you could go into a game with the same goal. Assuming my spin angle is pretty efficient, I should be able to carry this ball.”

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FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Alcides Escobar is slashing .281/.319/.339 for NPB’s Yakult Swallows. The former Kansas City Royals shortstop is in his first season in Japan after spending last year in the Chicago White Sox organization.

Frank Herrmann has a 2.14 ERA in 34 relief appearances for the Chiba Lotte Marines. The Harvard grad — now in his fourth NPB season — has been credited with three wins and a save.

Nippon Ham Fighters outfielder Haruki Nishikawa leads NPB in stolen bases with 40. The 28-year-old is slashing .310/.432/.400. He’s gone deep five times.

The DeNA BayStars had 24,537 fans at Yokohama Stadium on Friday, and 27,850 on Saturday — the first normal-sized crowds to watch a sporting event in Japan since February. (per jballallen.com.)

The KBO kicks off its postseason tonight with the LG Twins playing the Kiwoom Heroes in the Wild Card game. An explanation of KBO’s playoff structure, which differs from MLB’s, can be found here here.

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I ran a Twitter poll yesterday, asking whether playing World Series games at a neutral site is a good idea or a bad idea. That obviously happened this past season, and while it was due to extenuating circumstances, MLB is reportedly considering doing so again in the future. If such a change does take place, the majority of people who voted in my poll wouldn’t be particularly pleased. A full 77.9% deemed it a bad idea.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh wrote about how Blake Snell’s Game 6 hook was the latest sign of MLB’s starting pitcher apocalypse.

Ji-Man Choi became the the first Korean-born player to collect a base hit in the World Series, and Do-Hyoung Park wrote about him at MLB.com.

At The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Derrick Goold wrote about the Cardinals’ decision to decline the option on Kolten Wong’s contract, and how it portends a frigid marketplace.

Bill James Online presented us with a breakdown of players having more WAR or Win Shares than that season’s MVP-award winner.

NPB’s reigning dynasty wrapped up another Pacific League pennant in 2020, and Jason Coskrey reported on it for The Japan Times.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Six Tampa Bay Rays hitters batted over .300 in this year’s World Series. Eight batted under .200. None batted between .200 and .300. Randy Arozarena, Mike Brosseau, Yandy Diaz, Kevin Kiermaier, Manuel Margot, and Brett Phillips combined to go 28 for 79 (.354). The rest of the team combined to go just 14 for 115 (.122).

Randy Arozarena went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts and a HBP in the 2019 postseason.

Jeremy Affeldt had a 0.86 ERA in 33 postseason relief appearances. The left-hander allowed 14 hits in 31-and-a-third innings, and was on the winning end of both his decisions. The last of the decisions came in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series.

Don Mattingly played in 1,785 games and had a .358 OBP and 124 wRC+.
Mike Hargrove played in 1,666 games and had a .396 OBP and 124 wRC+.

Mickey Mantle had a 1.000 OPS through his first 1,000 games. (per Jeremy Frank and Jim Passon Jr’s Hidden Ball Trick: The Baseball Stats You Never Thought To Look For.)

Jimmie Foxx had 2,646 hits, 1,117 of which were extra-base hits.
Ted Williams had 2,654 hits, 1,117 of which were extra-base hits.

Rafael Palmeiro had 1,192 extra-base hits and a 130 wRC+.
Ken Griffey Jr. had 1,192 extra-base hits and a 131 wRC+.
David Ortiz had 1,192 extra-base hits and a 134 wRC+.

Tony La Russa’s first big-league plate appearance came in his 15th big-league game. His first hit — a triple off Baltimore’s Steve Barber — came two days later.

On today’s date in 2007, Daisuke Yamai and Hitoki Iwase combined for a perfect game as the Chunichi Dragons beat the Nippon Ham Fighters 1-0 to claim their first Japan Series title since 1954.

Players born on this date include Ham Hyatt, who played for the World Series-winning Pittsburgh Pirates in his 1909 rookie season. Hyatt would later be part of a deal that included Larimore, North Dakota native Truck Hannah, and Hopeful, Alabama native Howie Camp.

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